If you see a riverine rabbit, you will belong to a very tiny and exclusive group of people. It is thought to only number in the low hundreds and is found along dry riverbeds in the arid central Karoo. This critically endangered mammal is a flagship species for this semi-desert’s delicate ecology.

Did you know?

The riverine rabbit is the only indigenous burrowing rabbit in Africa.

In the middle of South Africa’s semi-arid Karoo is found one of the world’s most vanishingly rare mammals: the riverine rabbit.

There are thought to be only a few hundred left, which is why this handsome little creature with its distinctive matinee idol ‘moustache’, white-ringed eyes and fluffy feet is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Riverine rabbits are found nowhere except in South Africa’s Karoo region, and as their name indicates, their preferred habitat is along the dry riverbeds of this arid region. They rely on the deep, silty soils for burrowing, and the river-edge plants, which remain greener for longer, even when the rivers are completely dry. Many riverbanks in this area have been degraded by grazing and crops.

Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to the species’ survival.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Riverine Rabbit Programme is based in the tiny Karoo town of Loxton, and works closely with local farmers to save the rabbit, including rehabilitating degraded riverbanks with suitable plants.

The riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis) is nocturnal. It lies up in shallow scrapes under bushes during the day, and sallies out at night to hunt for its favourite buchu and inkbush leaves and flowers. Riverine rabbits only live for about three years, and females mostly have about four babies in their lifetimes, all born in burrows lined with fur and leaves.

With so few riverine rabbits, it’s difficult to build up a picture of their habits. The Endangered Wildlife Trust has observed them through camera traps, activated by motion. One of the first things the researchers learned was that these nocturnal creatures are often still out in the very early morning, especially in winter.

Riverine rabbits are obviously difficult to see. Even fieldworkers can go for years without actually encountering one.

So it was a real thrill for conservationists in 2006 when the privately-owned Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, only three hours’ drive from Cape Town, found its 54 000 hectares were home to several riverine rabbits.

The management at this private reserve set up a monitoring programme that recently celebrated its 101st riverine rabbit sighting.

Dunedin Farm near Loxton also offers special drives to look for riverine rabbits. A number have been photographed on their farm using camera traps.

The riverine rabbit’s range has been found to stretch far further south, in recent years, than its ‘traditional’ range around the towns of Williston, Fraserburg, Carnarvon, Victoria West and Loxton in the dry Karoo region.

It has always been an elusive animal, first described for science in 1902 by a British trooper recuperating at the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War) field hospital at Deelfontein in what is now the Free State. Then it disappeared for decades.

In the 1940s, the Kaffrarian Museum in King William’s Town offered a pound per specimen – which is why the riverine rabbit is still sometimes called the pondhaas, which means 'pound rabbit' in Afrikaans.

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